This Thursday night, celebrated autuer and two-time Black Reel Award winning director Spike Lee will be the guest programmer on TCM selecting four classic films that will be shown and also discuss their impact on his career.
Lee, an NYU professor of film, selected four 1950’s stories that all featured dominant performances from their leading men. His selections include On The Waterfront, The Night of The Hunter, Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd.
Lee’s movies have typically examined race relations, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other political issues. His selections provide prospective on the types of stories that influenced him and later provided inspiration for the movies he would create. Once could argue that watching performances from Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Andy Grifith in his childhood, later helped in his career with contemporaries like Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes.
Here’s a closer look at the films selected by Lee:
Ace in the Hole a biting examination of the seedy relationship between the press, the news it reports and the manner in which it reports it. Initially a critical and commercial failure for celebrated director Billy Wilder, in later years the film has found new respect among critics. Roger Ebert wrote in 2007, “Although the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all its power. It hasn’t aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean [with their dialogue] . . . [Kirk Douglas’] focus and energy . . . is almost scary. There is nothing dated about [his] performance. It’s as right-now as a sharpened knife.”
Lee also selected one of our favorites, Elia Kazan’s eight-time Oscar winner, On The Waterfront featuring an iconic performance from Brando. Kazan’s crime drama about union violence and corruption among longshoremen was Brando’s signature performance, that Ebert once claimed, “changed acting in America.” The film was the controversial Kazan’s answer to those that criticized him for his naming eight (former) Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, an act that divided Hollywood until his death.
Another film that influenced Lee was the thriller, The Night of the Hunter. Based on the true story of Harry Powers, hanged in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The only film by director Charles Laughton, it’s lyric and expressionistic style set it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s, and addition to Lee it also influenced auteurs such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and Rob Zombie. In Do The Right Thing, Radio Raheem’s “Love and Hate” rings were an homage to Mitchum’s tattooed fingers from the film.
Shot in black and white in the styles and motifs of German Expressionism (bizarre shadows, stylized dialogue, distorted perspectives, surreal sets, odd camera angles) to create a simplified and disturbing mood that reflects the sinister character of Powell (Mitchum), the nightmarish fears of the children, and the sweetness of their savior Rachel. Ebert wrote, “It is one of the most frightening of movies, with one of the most unforgettable of villains, and on both of those scores it holds up … well after four decades.”
Another of Lee’s favorites (and ours as well) is A Face in the Crowd. The story centers on a drifter named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Griffith, in a role starkly different from the amiable “Sheriff Andy Taylor” persona), who is discovered by the producer (Neal) of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.
Griffith, in only his third film, gives a memorable tour-de-force performance as a man far ahead of his and our times. The film is an ominous precursur to the rise of political cynicism, the advent of reality television and the empty worship of famous celebrity. It’s biting satirical nature would later surface in Lee’s career in Bamboozled, his satire on race.
Also notable is the fact Lee chose two films written by noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg (A Face in the Crowd and On the Waterfront), stories that deal with strong-willed yet flawed men. Characters such as Dap (School Daze), Malcolm X and Huey Newton represent such men in Lee’s films.
Lee’s next film, Red Hook Summer, will land in theaters on August
Make sure to check out Lee and his night of films, Thursday beginning at 8pm on TCM.